Friday, June 09, 2006

The Legacy of Catcher in the Rye

When I made the unlikely comparison between Catcher in the Rye and The O.C. in my last post, I was probably writing under the influence of an essay I read recently, "Teenage Wasteland: Coming-of-Age Novels in the 1980s and 1990s" by Kirk Curnutt, published by the journal Critique in 2001. Cornutt uses Catcher as a starting point to talk about the notable novels concerned with young adults that came after. He provides a simple yet powerful model of development to describe changes in the fiction, as well as the changing social attitudes toward youth. The adolescence of Salinger's novel is an uncompromising moral idealism confronted with the corruption and hypocrisy of adulthood. Holden Caulfield rebels against an authority that does not deserve patronage, and hopes to protect the next generation from adult phoniness. In short, though he may be cynical and disenfranchised, Caulfield is passionate and yearns for social engagement.

According to Cornutt, the novels that followed retained the cynicism but jettisoned the passion and idealism. Works like Less Than Zero, Generation X, and The Secret History show adolescence as a bleak, amoral period. The characters in these novels have an incapacity to feel, and experience their own lives as if mediated, often through the lens of empty popular culture. Instead of challenging adult authority, the novels display a kind of nostalgia for adult attention and guidance, and a concern with rebuilding family, not surprising given the rising divorce rates during that time period. Cornutt gives a name to the narrative formula employed by many of these titles: "despair-repair." He warns against the kind of sociological simplification these titles exhibit, and suggests that future novels should not merely reinscribe pre-Catcher in the Rye notions of adult authority.

I generally found the article very helpful for its description of intellectual trends in a swath of fiction I am not yet totally familiar with, but I do have some criticisms. The method of identifying a kind of authoritative vanguard of titles to prove this teleology from adolescent idealism to disaffection has limits. What about all the titles that don't necessarily earn critical acclaim, but may speak more directly to and about the generation they represent? For example, the oft-ignored category of Young Adult fiction--all those stories about high school sports, the embarrassments of puberty, and teenage detectives. Or genre fiction like Ender's Game, which offers a pretty scathing indictment of adult authority. Or works in other media, such as John Hughes' influential teen movies. Granted, Cornutt's project is to ask why the examples he gives have earned such notoriety, how they have tapped into adult fears about children, rather than if they represent accurate reflections of youth.

Also, I wonder if there is perhaps a simpler explanation for this evolution. If coming-of-age novels are a genre, then how much of this innovation can be explained as a challenge to genre conventions rather than intentional commentary about youth. How else could novelists escape the shadow of Catcher in the Rye than by pushing the disaffection towards the nihilistic? Also, could the visibility of these particular titles be a matter of population dynamics and political economy? Generation X was a numerically smaller generation than the Baby Boomers. And if the Boomers are a greater market force, it shouldn't surprise us that stories idealizing Boomer adolescence, like Catcher in the Rye, but vilifying Gen X adolescence would gain prominence.

But if there's some truth to Cornutt's model, as I do believe there is, how do we fit contemporary adolescence narratives into his progression? Is a series like Harry Potter, with its glorification of adult authority figures like Dumbledore and Serious Black, merely recalling the nostalgia for authority? Or is Harry's general apathy towards the rules, and his distrust of adults like Snape and the Dursleys, put him more in the Holden Caulfield vein? Or how about Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Buffy's talents both alienate her from and connected her to society. She endures a period of numbness (season 6), but gets over it. How to describe these works' attitudes towards adolescence without simplifying?


Blogger cheamyname said...

That's really thoughtful
The Catcher In The Rye is my favorite book,so u know how I feel.
Keep in touch.
Ohh....Check my blog.
All the best wishes

7:27 PM  
Blogger A Girl with a Thought.... said...

I enjoyed reading your blog, i found it in my research, I am writing an essay on 'attitude formation' and i have been trying to show that holden is experiencing many of the psychological problems that youth experience today, it was enlightening to find someone who also shares this opinion, i am also a youth worker so i experience this first hand...keep on bloging..emma

9:40 AM  

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